Journalism and Qualitative Research, I

What’s the difference between qualitative research and ethnography?   Some obvious ones — the academic setting, the  practices of peer review (which is famously uneven and inconsistent) versus ‘fact-checking’ (which can range from weak to stringent) the more common use of real names in journalism and the (usually) tighter time pressures; the need in journalism to write for a broader market (the books must sell), and so forth.

Choice of topic and the ways topics are addressed also differ.  Charles Perrow, a sociologist of organizations (author of a fine textbook on Complex Organizations) said in about 1979 that if he wanted to find out something about how corporations were really run, he’d read Mother Jones (a left-wing magazine of investigative reporting) before Administrative Science Quarterly (the most prestigious journal in the field).  Investigative reporters have rarely been captured by the institutions they write about (unlike many newspaper and media reporters, and most academics).

There are also close historical connections.  W.F. Whyte, in his famous appendix to Street Corner Society (which in turn influenced many later ethnographes), recounted that one of his great inspirations was the muck-raking journalist Lincoln Steffens.  He writes of Steffens Autobiography (which includes a great many examples of his reporting on urban corruption in the late 19th century, much of it published in the magazine McClure’s) “I was fascinated by it and read it through several times . . . He demonstrated that a man of a background similar to my own could step out of his own usual walks of life and gain an intimate knowledge of individuals and groups whose activities and beliefs were far different from his own.”  Many early sociologists also wrote journalism (or at least published for the popular media) and one still sees some of this today, though there’s much more professional closure.  In any event, you can learn a lot from reading journalism, not least descriptive technique — but also how one makes complex issues accessible and readable to a general public — you reflect on these things in relation to academic texts on the same topics.

I cheat a bit here:  Most of these have won prizes, so they aren’t the run-of-the-mill

Samuel Freedman – Small Victories (the NY Times turns many of whose reporters into mouthpieces for the institutions they deal with — note the abject toe-licking quality of their reporting prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq — but Freedman’s an example that shows this isn’t necessarily the case; see also David Cay Johnston, below)

J. Anthony Lukas – Common Ground.  Massive and brilliant study around the Boston school desegregation process.  My undergraduate teacher preparation students called it “the novel” and didn’t like it.  Too many characters, they said.

Randall Rothenberg – Where the Suckers Moon.  You wouldn’t think a book about an advertising campaign would be so interesting — but it is, and it’s also a fascinating analysis of organizations, advertising, and publicity.

Barbara Garson – Money Makes the World Go Around. Simple question:  what happens to the money you put in the bank. Garson traces a the global movements of her money.

Anne Fadiman – The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Fadiman later became writer-in-residence at Yale, which makes her some sort of academic now, but this book is a piece of superior journalism)

David Cay Johnston, Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich–and Cheat Everybody Else [He has a useful blog, too, if you’re interested in this topic –

Grescoe, T. (2007) Bottomfeeder.  The book’s about overfishing, which Grescoe opens up by making himself the protagonist, riding on boats, eating this or that, going to fish-markets, but using his experience as an entry-point to the more general issues.  (On food generally there are some well-known examples of good journalism — the chapter on Corn in Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as Fast-Food Nation)

Scahill, Jeremy, (2007).  Blackwater:  The rise of the world’s most powerful mercenary army.  Nation Books.  There are academic

Goldman, Francisco (2008)  The art of political murder.  Grove. (Goldman is actually a novelist, but this is a meticulous analysis and reconstruction of the assassination of Archbishop Romero.

Saviano, Roberto  (2006).  Gomorrah. Picador.  Study of organized crime in Italy.  Author went into police protection after publication.

Martinez, Martinez (2001). Crossing Over:  A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail.  Picador

Dan Morgan (1979).  Merchants of Grain. Okay, it’s old — but this was the first book of investigative journalism I read in a PhD class — the great Gideon Sjoberg, teaching a course on organizations.  As I recall, he used it in part because of a dearth of academic research on inter-organizational networks and power.  That’s not so true anymore

And as for Mother Jones — still going, still cheap, and still valuable.  E.g., this from a piece by Russell Mokhiber, “Robert Rubin Rewrite the Rules,” published in 1999 after financial deregulation:  what will the result be?  Mokhiber predicted that it will:

  • pave the way for a new round of record-shattering financial industry mergers, dangerously concentrating political and economic power;
  • create too-big-to-fail institutions that are someday likely to drain the public treasury as taxpayers bail out imperiled financial giants to protect the stability of the nation’s banking system;
  • leave financial regulatory authority spread among a half dozen federal and 50 state agencies, all uncoordinated, that will be overmatched by the soon-to-be financial goliaths;
  • facilitate the rip-off of mutual fund insurance policy holders by permitting mutual insurance funds to switch domicile states — thereby enabling them to locate in states where they can convert to for-profit, stockholder companies without properly reimbursing policyholders (a conversion of tens of billions of dollars);
  • permit the new financial giants to share finance, health, consumer, and other personal information among affiliates, compromising consumer privacy; and
  • allow banks to continue to deny services to the poor . . .

As Perrow said ….


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